Many social campaigns have been run to raise awareness about some issue or other. The thinking behind these campaigns is that if we just present them with the cold, hard facts, people will come to the right conclusion. But often, the facts don’t stick, and awareness-raising efforts don’t lead to desired behaviors or outcomes.
The truth is — and the adjectives “cold” and “hard” are important clues here — facts, by themselves, don’t work. This is because meaning trumps facts. The Center for Story-Based Strategy explains it well:
“Having the facts on our side and defining our policy proposals are very important. However, as cognitive science has shown us, when a fact challenges a cherished, pre-existing belief, the majority of people will dismiss the fact. The facts alone are simply not enough to change hearts and minds. Instead, we need to make the important facts meaningful to people in order to make them receptive to new information.”
Meaning is what moves us. And it is subjective — we can’t separate it from the holder; it is bound up with one’s values, experiences, and immediate context. Thus, we unavoidably participate with the things around us all the time. Even science and journalism — two fields that are held up for their “objectivity” — recognize that how we regard the objects of our thoughts is colored by the associations and value we assign to them. Thus, science is a method to get to the truth, and journalism upholds a set of standards (getting both sides, having more than one source, etc.) to guide its practice.
Stories are the shared source of meanings we attach to words, images, events, and experiences, allowing us to understand abstract concepts and even ourselves (“Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind” by Yuval Harari, 2015). At the social level, stories are lodged and maintained in culture and collective memory as myths, binding us together.
Now, most of us define myths as sacred stories about the origin of things, spun by our ancestors and to be studied as literature or told to our children at bedtime. We overlook the truth that myths, both ancient and contemporary, operate in our daily lives to tell us who we are, how the world works, where we belong and how we should act.
Myths explain reality. They are what make us believe that illnesses, super typhoons, and the pandemic are the acts of a mangkukulam (voodoo witch) or an angry god who must be appeased. Myths are why we set off fireworks on New Year's Eve. Myths are what make us agree that sacrifice is necessary for the greater good.
Myths define our identity and values. Classic fairytales tell us that women are helpless people who need saving by chivalrous men (and may be kissed by him while she’s unconscious). Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” tells us that bad deeds are stains on our conscience that will forever plague our lives. “Florante at Laura” tells us that good people are Christians, and that good Moros will eventually convert to Catholicism.
And myths prescribe our relationships with one another and our environment, as well as our roles, attitudes, beliefs, and behavior. Contemporary myths like “Harry Potter” and “Game of Thrones” teach us that there are special people whose roles are pre-destined. Marvel and DC comics teach us there are beings with gifts on which our lives depend. “War of the Worlds,” “Independence Day,” “Alien/s” and even “Mars Attacks!” teach us that outsiders are a threat to our existence. “Mad Max,” “The Terminator” and “The Matrix” teach us that a future of environmental destruction and/or dominance of technology over our lives is inevitable. But also, “Lord of the Rings” and “Star Wars” teach us that by banding together for the greater good, small folk can change the course of history.
Communicators and advocates for social change need to recognize the myths that affect how we and our audiences perceive and talk about the issues we currently face — gender, integrity, diversity, political participation, economy, vaccines, immigration, terrorism, climate, social media, artificial intelligence, and so on. What words, metaphors and images do we use that call up certain myths from our unconscious memory to make people frame issues in a certain way (“The All New Don’t Think of an Elephant!: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate” by George Lakoff, 2014)? Who do these myths privilege or disadvantage? Whose perspective or position do they justify? How are they bound up with our social structures and functions? The answers to these questions will explain why some people insist that only the “edukado” can run for public office, or why mainstream policymakers focus on taking care of the “economy” even to the point of neglecting the majority’s welfare, or why most of the memorials to our heroes depict their moment of death rather than their life and contribution to the nation.
But more than that, as we design and run our communication campaigns, we need to select and tap the myths that will lead our audience to the action we want them to take. Are we activating the right meanings in their minds? Do the images and language we use inadvertently pervert our message instead of strengthening it (“Don’t Buy It: The Trouble with Talking Nonsense about the Economy” by Anat Shenker-Osorio, 2012). Chosen carefully and in combination, myths can paint a future for an entire collective, as well as move people towards that future. Myth has creative power.
For social change, communication is crucial, and we necessarily have to understand our myths, select which ones to activate, and maybe even create new ones to replace those that keep us from getting to the future we want. Our task is to bring those myths that speak about empowerment, collective agency, and confidence from the realm of the sacred and make them banal.